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Religion

Donations down, diocese cuts jobs

The Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg blames a lackluster economy.

By SHARON TUBBS
Published March 9, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - After three years of declining contributions, the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg is planning to substantially cut administrative jobs in an attempt to preserve programs.

A severance package has been offered to all of the diocese's 120 full- and part-time employees at its pastoral center in St. Petersburg. The diocese has 75 parishes and 380,000 parishioners in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

The administrative employees have until 5 p.m. Wednesday to decide whether to take the offer, which was initially made last month.

Church leaders have no set goal for reducing employees, said the Rev. Alan Weber, vicar general and Bishop Robert N. Lynch's second in command. He said the diocese would rather cut jobs and rework staff responsibilities than cut into support programs.

Weber attributed the drop in contributions to a sluggish economy. He said it is difficult to gauge the effect of the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church nationally.

The diocese will tally the number of employees who opt for the package, then reassess this year's $14-million budget and the services that administrators provide to parishes.

If enough employees don't take the offer, the diocese may eliminate jobs. After Wednesday, severance packages will be reduced by half, said spokeswoman Mary Jo Murphy.

The "voluntary separation" package offers administrative workers two weeks of pay, plus two weeks of pay for each year they worked for the diocese, up to a total of 26 weeks' pay. Employees also will get four months of health insurance, as well as pay for their remaining vacation days and a portion of their sick days. June 30 will be the last work day for those who take the package.

About $8.5-million, or roughly 60 percent, of this year's budget comes from parishes, Murphy said. That includes an annual assessment to each parish known as "the bishop's annual pastoral appeal."

The assessment, based partly on the previous year's contributions, helps pay for several programs, including support for Catholic Charities; missions for migrant workers; and funding for the diocesan schools office, the headquarters for Catholic schools in the area.

Over the past three years, contributions from half of the parishes decreased and some were unable to meet their annual assessment, Murphy said.

Offerings from the other half of the parishes remained the same or increased slightly, but not enough to offset the decreases from other parishes or keep up with increases in health care costs and salaries. Overall parish giving decreased 3 percent to 4 percent during the 2002-2003 fiscal year, Murphy said.

Weber blamed the lackluster economy. Parishioners, particularly retirees, are not able to give as much as they used to, he said.

"Every charity in America has run across economic problems," he said.

The decision to cut jobs comes on the heels of a tumultuous time for Catholics nationwide.

After news of the priest sex abuse scandal, Catholics across the country protested by closing their pocketbooks to the church.

A December 2002 Gallup survey said 40 percent of the nation's Catholics were less likely to donate to the church. Areas such as Boston, where abusive priests had been shuffled around for decades, were hit particularly hard.

Lynch announced in December that the diocese had spent more than $1-million in recent years to settle sexual abuse claims and cover expenses.

He emphasized that all liability claims were covered by insurance underwriters or the diocese's insurance reserves, not money from the bishop's pastoral appeal or a diocesan capital campaign.

Weber said it would be difficult to determine the scandal's impact on local offering plates because the decreases have not been across the board.

The bishop has decided against raising parish assessments for the 2004-2005 fiscal year, which begins July 1. That would only add another burden to parishioners, Weber said.

"Keeping our revenues flat," he said, "means that we have to decrease some of the things that we do because prices keep going up."

- Times staff writer Waveney Ann Moore contributed to this report, which also included information from Times files.

[Last modified March 9, 2004, 01:35:32]


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